Hitmen cruise into playoffs

SCOTT FISHER -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:20 AM ET

It wasn't the most exciting playoff race but the Calgary Hitmen don't seem to mind.

The Hitmen beat Portland 4-1 in front of 12,689 last night at the 'Dome to lock up a Central Division post-season berth.

Riley Merkley, Freddie Pettersson, Brett Sonne and Carson McMillan lit the lamp for the Hitmen (38-11-1-0), who held on to top spot in the WHL standings.

Merkley, who kickstarted the offence late in the second period, said he's not used to sealing up a playoff spot until the final weeks of the season.

"It's nice to have it," Merkley said. "It wasn't the closest (race) I've ever been involved in during my three years here.

"It's usually right down to the wire."

Realistically, a playoff spot was a foregone conclusion long ago. There's still plenty to play down the stretch.

"That's not a big deal," Merkley said of clinching. "Obviously, the big race is with Medicine Hat. They never lose so we can't lose."

The Central Division rivals will meet Wednesday in the Gas City.

"That's going to be a huge game. They're always big against Medicine Hat but it'll be even bigger this time."

Justin Pogge kicked out 18 shots to earn his 30th victory of the campaign. The Hitmen 'tender has won 14 straight WHL games dating back to mid-November.

With the teams deadlocked at one early in the third period, Pettersson skated out of a crowd in his own zone and turned on the speed.

The Swede blazed past three defenders at the Hawks blueline, cut to the net and tucked the puck past High River product Dustin Butler.

Pettersson has points in nine of his last 10 outings.

Sonne gave the Hitmen some breathing room midway through the final frame. Craig Lineker's point shot came off the boards and Sonne jammed it home.

McMillan scored into an empty net to hand the Hawks their sixth straight loss.

Making their sixth stop on a seven-game road trip, the visitors looked tired in the early going.

But despite a large territorial advantage and a trio of powerplays, the Hitmen were unable to capitalize as Jon Bubnick opened the scoring.

- - -

CALGARY HITMEN: 4

PORTLAND WINTER HAWKS: 1


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